Radio Golf: Green Fees
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by Michael Dale
When we last left Pittsburgh's Hill District, via King Hedley II, the 1980's edition of August Wilson's decade-by-decade cycle of plays depicting black American life in the 20th Century, it had dilapidated from a rich cultural center to a grimy slum where violent crime is so rampant that pregnant women would rather have abortions than face the very real possibility of having to attend their children's funerals. When word got out that the mystical figure of Aunt Ester, whose birth date coincided with the year slave ships first hit these shores, had died it seemed all chance of hope for the community was lost.
Radio Golf, Wilson's evocative final work, debates the issues of urban renewal, racial assimilation and progress at the expense of the preservation of cultural heritage.
The Hill District is the childhood home of Harmond Wilks (Harry Lennix); a rising real estate honcho with plans to begin rebuilding the neighborhoor with a high-rise building that will be home to a Barnes & Noble, a Whole Foods and a Starbucks. He and his wife Mame (Tonya Pinkins), a political speechwriter who is becoming a force in her own right, are certain the resulting publicity can launch a campaign to have Wilks elected Pittsburgh's first black mayor. When word arrives that a court has declared the community as officially "blighted," meaning that plans can go as scheduled, he and business partner Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams) do giddy dances of joy.
But a hitch arrives in the form of Elder Joseph Barlow (Anthony Chisholm), the owner of a thought-to-be-abandoned building set to be torn down and replaced by the skyscraper. Followers of August Wilson's plays will recognize the address as the former home of Aunt Ester, 1839 Wylie Avenue. (1839 being the year of the Amistad revolt.) Though Wilks and Hicks bought the property legally through public auction, it turns out that a glitch in the system meant the property should never have been put up for sale to begin with and Barlow has no intention of selling. But contracts have been signed and the wheels are already in motion. The candidate who wants to be the friend of the little guy is now put in a position of being seen as an upwardly mobile black man with no consideration for the less fortunate of his race.
Meanwhile, Hicks, who idolizes Tiger Woods, has found himself a welcome addition to the golf course of a predominantly white country club, especially when the opportunity arises for him to buy a local radio station in partnership with a white man who needs a black face involved in order to benefit from the FCC's favoring of minority purchases. Hicks will have nothing to do with Wilks' proposal to save Barlow's home with a compromise, leading to an impassioned debate where a certain n-word – and not the one you think – is invoked with a furious hatred.
Director Kenny Leon's production is electric. Uncharacteristically for Wilson, the eloquent poetry of language is almost completely absent from this play, suggesting his main characters' assimilation into the predominantly white wealthier class. The give and take between Lennix and Williams comes sharp, fast and frequently funny, with Lennix giving an excellent turn as the morally torn Wilks, not able to justify sacrificing one individual's rights for the needs of the many, not to mention his own personal gain. And though Hicks is not presented sympathetically, he's far from a villian in Williams' hands as he portrays a level-headed opportunist who only looks forward. Though Pinkins' role is underwritten, she stands as an effective symbol of what Wilks has to lose.
John Earl Jelks exudes straight-forward common sense humor as Sterling Johnson, a construction worker who serves as reminder of the kind of people who Wilks is trying to rely on to get himself elected. As the mentally fading Barlow, Chisholm is a beautiful reminder of every culture's need to regard its history, particulary in a heart-breaking monolgue motivated by the offer of an American flag lapel pin.
David Gallo's magnificent set reveals the colorful energy of Wilks' office flanked on the left by the inside of an abandoned barber shop and on the right by the dusty remains of a diner – perhaps the one which was the setting of Wilson's Two Trains Running – lit with an unsettling ghost-like quality by Donald Holder.
When the curtain falls on the final offering from one of this country's greatest playwrights, there is an exciting sense of optimism in the air. The kind of optimism you get when you know that people are acting heroicly and selflessly. An incredible artist leaves us with an incredible feeling.
Center: James A. Williams